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Could GM Be Cool Again?

There’s an almost palpable lack of confidence that General Motors will exit bankruptcy as a leaner, meaner, stronger company. However, the game plan is basically to envision the New General as a sort of American Toyota, with a tidy lineup of brands to manage and an appealing fleet of economical, fuel-efficient vehicles to sell. Sedans and small, gas-sipping cars will be the future, not the fuel-chugging trucks and SUVs that got GM in trouble.

This is simply not going to happen, and it’s ultimately a good thing, because we don’t want the New GM to be a feeble imitation of Toyota. We want the new GM to be its own thing, as well as a more dynamic player in both the U.S. and international car market. GM will need to dig deep into its industrial DNA to make this happen. The bankruptcy process will make it much easier. Freed from the burden of having to sustain underperforming nameplates, such as Saab and Hummer, and service heavy debt, GM should become lighter on its feet.

It could also become … well, kind of chic. It’s now officially an underdog for the first time in more than 70 years, and the company has the mayor of Warren, Mich., agitating for a move out of its current HQ, the widely loathed Renaissance Center in Downtown Detroit, and into the beloved Technical Center. There’s a whiff of startup culture around GM now—an astonishing development, given the overall sense of irresistible mightiness that has clung to the company since the 1950s.

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It’s safe to assume that because GM will have fewer domestic plants and will shed workers, it will be a smaller producer of vehicles. The vehicles it will produce, however, look pretty good. My own preference is to see GM morph from being a company that, in the words of its great president Alfred Sloan, makes a car "for every purse and purpose" into a company that creates products of great specificity. Corvette, certain Cadillacs, and its rear-wheel drive Australian Holden division for performance. Buick for near-luxury vehicles in Asia. Chevy for small cars and sedans. A new badge for its plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles, now centered on the forthcoming Chevy Volt.

Everyone assumes that Chevrolet, being the putative volume brand, will be the center of the New GM, but I’d rather not see that Toyota-fying arrangement come to be. Instead, I’d rather see Chevy minimized, with more emphasis and resources directed to her brands that are less broad. GMC should be the truck and SUV brand. Chevy trucks and SUVs should go away. Not sure what to do about the new Chevy Camaro. Maybe allow it to drift as a stand-alone brand, like Corvette, and be sold at any GM dealership. Basically, I think GM should come out of bankruptcy with the goal of looking less like Toyota and more like BMW. (Not incidentally, these are the only two carmakers that have been consistently profitable over the past few decades, until recently.) Let the Asians, Chrysleriat, Ford, and perhaps at some point the Chinese or Indians handle the small-car market. (Despite the evident concession that GM made to the UAW about importing small cars from China—GM will instead build them here—the numbers on these vehicles will remain modest.) Let Toyota expand its affordable sedan offerings, and grow its U.S. manufacturing presence in Detroit South.

GM will also be able to tap another strain in its DNA—as an innovator. The series hybrid system the company has developed for the Chevy Volt has the significant advantage of extending the range of a hybrid without actually burning very much actual gas. Due to battery costs, it’s not as cost-effective right now as a hybrid of the Prius/Insight-type. (They cost $20,000, in base versions; the Volt may cost $50,000.) But as battery technologies improve, the Volt-type powertrain should become much more affordable.

Get the cool back

The way that GM does business will also become less … Eisenhower era. Bankruptcy will enable it to renegotiate its supplier relationships and right-size its dealer network. It should become more efficient at procuring everything from tires to sun visors. It’s not going to leave Chapter 11, and the sale of its good assets, as a radically reorganized, horizontally integrated firm, but it is going to emerge as a company with vehicles that in many segments are more compelling that what the competition is selling. The Cadillac Escalade Hybrid, for example, is the best full-size SUV on the planet. Corvette gives European supercars a run for their money, at thousands and thousands less. Over the next decade or so, there’s going to be much more choice in the U.S. auto market. Before, GM tried to compete for customers on almost every front. Now, it won’t have to. It will be able to concentrate on building and marketing the vehicles it does well.

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As the dead weight falls away, the GM that rises from bankruptcy has a legitimate shot at being something it hasn’t been … ever. Cool. That’s right. The New GM won’t be huge, powerful, vast. It will (oh please, oh please) be operating out of the Warren Technical Center, hammering home its market share in China, producing horsepower and handling where necessary and fuel-economy across the board. It will be nimble. It will potentially win the next-generation powertrain race. Its ability to sell cars to everyone will go away, but the everyone cars have been built by Toyota and Honda since the 1980s. The New GM could offer something superior. Remember the old advertising tag line: “When better cars are built, Buick will build them.” Now when cooler cars are built, the New GM will build them.

American cars lost their cool sometime between the 1970s gas crisis and June 1, 2009. It’s about time they got it back.